2005 World Brass Band Championships - Contest retrospective


Pete Meechan was on hand for 4BR to listen and comment on the bands taking part in the inaugural Brass Band World Championships, and see impeccable Swiss timing win the day.

The 9th and 10th of July saw the inaugural World Brass Band Championship in Kerkrade, Holland where competitions took place over 4 keenly contested sections in the Rodahal, the concert hall in the small southern-Holland town.

The quadrennial Championships were part of the annual World Music Contest, which feature thousands of musicians from all around the world playing in various ensembles; including Wind Bands/Orchestras and Fanfare Bands (very popular in Holland and Belgium – they often feature 80+ musicians including as many as 20 flugel horns!). The contests range from marching, to set piece contests, and also feature ‘concert programme' contests – very similar to the ‘Brass in Concert' contest.

The brass band section took place on the very first weekend of the WMC, and perhaps this was reflected in the attendances, which were generally poor, whilst none of the contests were ever more than half full.

Another reason for this could perhaps lie with the contest organisers – separate tickets for morning and afternoon on both days (including a ticket for the 3rd Section on the Sunday morning which only had 4 entrants), whilst the bandpersons ticket only gained you entrance to your own section. If perhaps the ticket included entrance to all sections, or at least all sections on that day, it would have made for a better atmosphere, and given members of the other bands a chance to see some fine performances.

The Championship Section:

Each of the seven bands in the Championship Section performed the set test on the Saturday evening, and an own choice programme mid-afternoon to late evening on Sunday. Philip Wilby's work ‘Music for the Moving Image – Three Sonatas for Brass Band' will no doubt be used as a test piece many times in the future, and it deserves to be thought of in the same high regard as works such ‘Revelation' and ‘…Dove Descending' (both of which were featured as own choice selections, as well ‘Peel Park' from ‘Lowry Sketchbook'). In particular, the middle sonata is perhaps some of the most beautiful music the movement has heard from the composer.

Brass Band Treize Etoiles
The World Champions Treize Etoiles accept the plaudits

Different bands approached the own choice section of the contest in different ways; some chose to give their programme an entertainments bias, whilst others gave it a very serious (though still entertaining) bent. There were also bands that chose to head down the middle of the road, and featured a bit of both!

The results told their own story – three of the top four bands performed a more serious own choice programme – all featuring some kind of opening piece (2 of these three bands had commissioned works for the event!), a substantial solo/concerto (again these featured new or recently composed/arranged music) and finished with a large test piece. The other band out of the top four maybe delivered a semi-serious programme – though it does have to be said that they won the own choice!!! The bands that used some sort of entertainments/comedy item finished lower down the order.

Whilst the draw might not have played a big part in the result in terms of adjudication, it certainly did in terms of playing conditions. The set test was in the evening but it was still very warm in the Rodahal. On the Sunday however, the heat was almost unbearable at the start (3pm) of the competition, though it did get cooler (but still very hot) through the contest, which ended at around 9pm.

The set test was closed adjudicated and the panel consisted of: David Read (UK), James Curnow (USA) and Maurice Hamers (NL). The own choice selection was open adjudication and Torgny Hanson (S), Armin Bachmann (CH) and Jan Van der Roost (B) made up the panel.

Placed seventh were Chicago Brass. They have only been in existence for 2 and a half years, and as their conductor Colin W. Holman pointed out, they are short of competition experience, due to the lack of contests in North America. However, despite this, the band should be encouraged by their strong performance, and the experience will prove invaluable as they build on this very solid foundation.

The Wilby was a well controlled performance, which whilst lacking a little of the flair of some of the more seasoned contenders, was still very effective. As with the majority of the bands, it took them a short while to get used to the acoustic and surroundings, but they had found their feet by the end of the first sonata. The second sonata was nicely rounded – it was a clever and original idea to have the trombone trio at the back of the stage to enhance that section - but it was the third that showed their real talent and potential. It was a very clinical performance, and we heard the band at their technical and musical best, bringing out the musical lines whilst still providing an effective accompaniment.

Their own choice selection started with Frank Wright's classic arrangement of ‘Benvenuto Cellini' (Berlioz). Their inexperience showed through a little as they struggled to deal with the high temperatures and it took them most of the duration of the piece to fully settle. Their solo item was a ‘Black and White Rag' (Joplin) which was a comedy routine between 2 percussionists and one xylophone! It was well executed, but in comparison to some of the other soloists on show on the second day, it was perhaps a little too light hearted.

Their main work was ‘St. Magnus', and they gave a very good reading, full of detail – the soprano, euphoniums and percussion deserve credit for their performances. We can only hope to hear more from this band as they grow from strength to strength over the coming years – and that this band are a good indication to what is happening in North American brass banding. If it is, the future is most defiantly bright for the continent.

In sixth place were Provinciale Brassband Groningen, who have recently been working with David King, and again this band shows a huge amount of potential.

Brass Band Provinciale Groningen
Groningen - Euphonium soloist Frans Aert Burghgreaf

Their conductor, Sieste Hamersma, guided them through the Wilby, and whilst not the most exciting of performances, it was nicely played, with only a few slips along the way, and they would have been happy with their mark of 87 points.

Their own choice selection opened up with 'Prelude' from the ‘Holberg Suite' and the ‘Finale' from the ‘Third Symphony' of Rachmaninov, before moving on to their euphonium soloist, Frans Aert Burghgreaf. He performed Hummel's ‘Fantasie' (Opus 96), arranged by Robert Childs, with style, and it was good to see a musician really "going for it". This gave us a taster of what we were to hear in their main piece, ‘Revelation'. Maybe the many recordings (studio and live versions) of this masterwork that can now be purchased on CD can help conductors and musicians with interpretation ideas. However, good interpretation is one thing – good playing is another….

During this performance of Wilby's work, it seemed to be a different band to the one the previous day. It was a reading full of energy and excitement, whilst at the same time being well balanced and skilfully controlled by their MD. All soloists and duettists were in top form – including the famous euphonium duet. A well-balanced partnership is required for this, otherwise it can sound very disjointed – and here that is exactly what we heard - a partnership. The whole band always seemed to be working together and for each other and no doubt they will have been very happy with this performance.

In a disappointing fifth place were Reg Vardy, after they didn't quite build on their fantastic recent run of form in contests. Sporting black armbands in memory of the victims of the terrorist atrocities in London, their reading of the Wilby was very musical, and it was a well crafted performance by their conductor, Ray Farr - even with the cameraman moving and making noise at the most inopportune moments. It was a performance that found favour with many in the audience, myself included, but not with the adjudicators, who gave them a slightly harsh 90 points.

Reg Vardy
Reg Vardy stroll through Peel Park

However, Reg Vardy's own choice programme was very different to the other bands. ‘Peel Park' (Wilby) was an encouraging opening, then followed their soloist for the day, David Nercessian, performing the 2nd and 3rd movements of Shostakovich's ‘2nd Piano Concerto'. From the start, it was apparent that there were tuning problems (most probably caused by the extreme heat) and whilst they attempted to correct them, it was still a problem throughout the piece. Unfortunately, the grand piano was amplified – the lid wasn't even opened! –  and it didn't produce a very flattering sound, and created balance problems with the band.

The last 6 movements from Howarth's arrangement of Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition' followed, and for all the brilliant playing we heard here from soloists and tutti alike, it was matched by uncharacteristic slips. Khachaturian ‘Sabre Dance' was their encore, and whilst being a very entertaining item, for me, it was a shame they didn't play more of ‘Pictures' instead.

In fourth were Buizingen from Belgium conducted by Luc Vertommen. I had the pleasure of going out to Belgium to help them prepare for the competition, and also oversee rehearsals for the premiere of ‘B of the Bang', their opening work in the own choice section.

The band work really well together as a unit, and this was in evidence in their performance of the Wilby. The outer movements were performed at very lively and exciting tempos, but it was in the middle sonata where the band excelled. Musically, it was extremely well controlled by their MD, and it contrasted well with the other two sonatas. Like Reg Vardy, they may feel a little unlucky not to pick up an extra point or two for the set test, despite a slightly shaky opening.

They opened their own choice programme with a new commission titled ‘B of the Bang' (named after the famous Linford Christie quote). All I can really say about this performance was that the composer was "….over the moon….really pleased…" with the premiere performance!!!

Buizingen's soloist for the day was percussionist Gaetan La Mela, who performed Vertommen's new arrangement of Mayuzumi's ‘Concertino for Xylophone'. The work is in three movements and it utilises these by allowing the soloist to show many facets of the instrument – from fast and furious to gentle and elegiac via some quite breathtaking rhythmical intricacies. The talented soloist was on top form, delivering a performance that was popular with audience and jury alike. I'm sure this won't be the last we hear from the soloist and this new arrangement.

The band have an extremely active commissioning policy, and this was shown in Kerade with their opener (‘B of the Bang'), and their most successful commission to date, ‘Ginnungagap…seeming emptiness' (Evenepoel). This is a huge work in three sections, which includes a whole battery of percussion and it was performed with style and was exciting from beginning to end. Buizingen came off stage and were deservedly happy with their performance.

The National Brass Band of New Zealand were third, which was a good result after drawing numbers 1 and 3 respectively. The first movement of the Wilby was clean until the re-entry of the original material, when it became a bit of a bumpy ride for a short time. They made amends for this with an extremely subtle second movement, featuring some of the quietest playing of the weekend in the chorale sections. The third was full of musical shapes and guided by their conductor, David Gallaher, came to a rousing climax at the finish. Again they may have been disappointed with the mark of 89 points for this performance.

They opened their own choice programme in the intense heat, with a piece commissioned for the bands performance in Kerkrade. ‘Prelude for Kerkrade' is a short opener, composed by Kenneth Young. It is a bright, spirited piece that was performed with a brilliance of sound from the band.

One of the highlights for most who attended was NZ's trombone soloist, David Bremner. He performed an extended work, titled ‘Clouds' (Anthony Ritchie), which was again commissioned for this event. ‘Clouds'  isn't the usual type of trombone brass band solo - it is a work similar to Wilby's ‘Flight' in concept – and this was playing of the very highest order.

They finished their programme with a remarkable performance of Wilby's ‘…Dove Descending'. From the outset of the piece it was clear that the band had really got to grips with the piece, technically, but most importantly, musically. In an all round stunning performance, euphonium Riki McDonnell stood out as he executed the difficult cadenza in a fluid and stylised manner. The standing ovation was also followed by an impromptu Haka by the accompanying Maori group – which received an equally enthusiastic reception from all in attendance.

Brass Band Willebroek, conducted as ever by Frans Violet, came in second place. On the first day they produced an efficient and clean performance of the Wilby, though it did lack a sense of excitement and purpose. Their own choice programme began with Ray Farr's ‘Intrada –‘Ein Fest Burg', which began as they left off the previous day, without setting the World on fire. They followed on with Leslie Condon's ‘Call of the Righteous', which featured some of the finest and most stylish solo cornet playing of the weekend.

They the followed this with their featured soloist, the bands principle euphonium, Stef Pillaert, performing ‘Caprice', composed by Ray Woodfield. It was fine playing from an exceptional musician, but it was maybe a shame that a longer and more substantial solo – perhaps a concerto or other extended work – wasn't used. However, he played very well, and was clearly popular with the audience.

At the European held in Groningen earlier this year, Willebroek were on the way to a memorable performance of Philip Sparke's ‘Music of the Spheres' when, almost inexplicably, the wheels fell off at the end and the piece collapsed, costing them valuable points. Sunday's performance of the work proved a point, and was simply sensational. There was barely a foot put wrong, and it felt like you were listening to a different band compared to their other performances here. Full of sweeping, musically crafted phrases, it captured the spirit of the piece perfectly. Perhaps their mark of 97 points for the own choice selection was a little generous, but nothing can take away from their ‘Music of the Spheres'.

The winners were Treize Etoiles from Switzerland conducted by Geo-Pierre Moen, and few who listened would disagree with the adjudicators. The band has been working with Howard Snell before the contest, and this appears to have paid dividends for them.

Through the whole set work contest, although the standard was extremely high, you felt that there was room for one special performance that would take the imitative for the band in the contest. It was the last band Treize Etoiles who did this, producing a magical performance of the Wilby, which got better from the slightly shaky start to grand finish, leading after the set work contest by a clear margin of three points.

Better was to come on Sunday when, from a number five draw, they sealed a memorable victory, with a stunning selection of music. They began with Van der Roost's ‘Homage'  which is based upon the last movement of famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony. With impeccable tuning, aided by the scoring, the band managed to actually sound like an organ, with the soprano cornet stealing the limelight at the end with a stunning performance.

Bertrand Moren was the featured soloist on trombone, performing ‘The Flying Slide', composed by Ethan Thompsan. This work was stylistically in direct contrast to the solo performed by NZ, but was equally as effective. The musicianship on display was of the highest calibre and was backed up with controlled high playing in this near-faultless performance.

Their final work was ‘Music of the Spheres' which was performed with all the style and skill this band had shown us all weekend long. It was a very assured performance, with all soloists excelling in every manner. Again, a near faultless display put them in pole position to win the championship.

Treize Etoiles were the class act of the weekend, and were very worthy winners. Congratulations to them for becoming World Champions!

Pete Meechan
Photos by Pat Herak


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